"Why do we fall?"
The third act of Nolan's eight-hour Batman film concluded this weekend with the release of The Dark Knight Rises. With 850 plot points stuffed into a 450-plot-point jug, and some fumbles in pacing, character, and subtext, the film doesn't hold up as a standalone in the same way its predecessors did. It also has some seriously questionable politics, even for a superhero movie (we'll get there). However, Nolan knows how to use callbacks to great effect, and the movie provides just enough closure that the things that really matter (James Gordon, Cillian Murphy, and the musical score) turn out all right.
But this Batman is a dark one, and we have to wade through some darkness.
There's no point in pretending that Nolan didn't reinvent the superhero movie after he built this new Batman out of the ashes of the franchise left by the slash-and-burn shit show that was Batman and Robin. Batman Begins introduced the Batman of the noir-tinged comics- gritty, damaged, constantly searching for fathers. (If there's one thing Nolan loves, it's a pile of men running around examining constructs of masculinity all over each other.) At last, he declared his alter ego an arbiter of justice and enacted vengeance on the enemies of Gotham. In The Dark Knight, he watched his careful construct come apart on two fronts, in the form of Harvey Dent, a district attorney with conviction under his own auspices, and the Joker, a cipher agent of chaos out to prove Batman's methods as flawed, and that even if he stuck to his own moral code, circumstances could conspire against him. Batman took the fall for Harvey Dent's crimes, making him public enemy #1 and tearing down the thing Bruce loved most – the superiority of the mask.
In The Dark Knight Rises, of course, he has to get it back.
These films really are three acts of the same movie. As such, in fact, The Dark Knight Rises runs into its biggest problems early on – in the rush to include everything necessary, things that would seem like emotional payoff two-thirds of the way into an eight-hour movie feel unearned when they come in at the twenty-minute mark here. (Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Detective Blake knowing Batman's ID – and spilling the beans – on their very first meeting, I could forgive; Alfred dropping a sudden anecdote about never wanting Bruce to come back from his disappearance, followed by a Meaningful Anecdote mic-dropping and Michael Caine's utter disappearance from the next two hours of film, I can't.)
And speaking of unearned, let's talk about the women.
For a guy whose general casting is so strong – a lot of repeat players, but with good reason – Nolan's track record with women is not strong. You tend to get one. She tends to be brunette. She tends to perish. (If you get two, one will perish and one will live but frown a lot.) And his casting record with the Batman trilogy is especially bad. His one-obligatory-brunette in Batman Begins was so unspeakably awkward that he actually had to recast her for The Dark Knight. (Then he killed her.)
In Dark Knight Rises, we have two women. One, Selina Kyle, looks amazing on paper (burglaring! Moral conflict! Playing both sides! Firepower! Exploiting the damsel stereotype to get out of a tough scrape!). Onscreen, she has the insurmountable handicap of being Anne Hathaway. She delivers as good a performance as she's probably capable of, and it's serviceable, though it still feels distinctly like a high schooler in a Batman student film.
Marion Cotillard is a much more effortless femme fatale, though she's relegated to the sidelines so much that her two big moments both fall flat. The first is her sexing of Bruce, though the actors have so little chemistry it honestly seems like a rider in the Extremely Good-Looking People Onscreen contract; while I admit surprise that these two actors couldn't generate even a spark, it's a small enough thing to forgive. The other misstep is bigger: the big reveal that she's actually Talia al Ghul, daughter of his mentor Ra's, and she broke out of prison, inherited her father's League, and has masterminded the entire Gotham Job with Bane as her partner in order to finish Dad's work.
In one way, preserving this "gotcha" makes sense (like most of the best moments in the movie, it's a callback to Batman Begins, and Ra's philosophy that for those in the way of justice, "you simply walk up behind them and stab them in the heart"). On a more essential level for this film to work on its own, this belabored gotcha, sustained by the sort of collective data-witholding pronoun-avoidance usually seen in a Harry Potter book, just a missed opportunity.
It actually fits nicely, as we realize the legend of the child who escaped that impossible prison, the ultimate symbol of hope and vengeance, is not Bane the dark reflection of Batman's self-loathing nihilism, but Talia, the dark reflection of his early training before he made that first crucial choice. It gives resonance to Bruce's back-breaking defeat by Bane, to his exile and escape from that same prison – a prison shaped like the well in his childhood that rendered Bruce hopeless for the first time and gave him the fear that would eventually turn him to Batman.
On the other hand, Nolan's Batman franchise tends to flesh out its antagonists to be more than set dressing-turned-dastardly (this is the superhero franchise in which half of the best advice Bruce Wayne ever got was from nemesis Carmine Falcone), and if there had been more of Talia in evidence on either end of the big reveal, it would have given more balance to the concept, and more power to the key moment.
(Plus, let's be real, in their one shared scene, Cotillard and Tom Hardy – who delivered a magnificent performance even before you take into account that he was working with about one-third an emotable face – have more chemistry than Bruce and either of his leading ladies; it's a shame not to have explored that. Nolan can pull off a scene of double-meaning dialogue! You know he filmed one! Scrape that back off the cutting-room floor!)
In fact, though Bane's unexpected demise at the hands of Catwoman is a smart twist befitting him, Talia's death is anticlimactic – the mastermind who held Gotham hostage shouldn't suffer the same fate as any truck-driving day player in an Indiana Jones movie, bonus monologue or not.
And you need better villainy than that to set up the politics at play here.
The underpinning of Batman Begins was fear. In The Dark Knight, it was chaos. Fittingly, in The Dark Knight Rises, it's hope. But more than the theme of each installment is the theme that ties the trilogy together: that of choice.
And the burden of choice doesn't rest on Batman's shoulders alone – from inventor Lucius Fox to incomparable secret-patriarch Alfred, there are indispensable secondary characters dedicated to do-gooding, most of whom are also aware of Bruce Wayne's night job (such as Detective Blake, another emotionally-retrained, physically-effortless performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt.)
Though at the core of this concept, as both a symbol of Gotham itself and a symbol of someone making (and living with) tough choices against frightening odds, the real protagonist of these movies is James Gordon. A safe-house scene, where the young idealist Detective Blake tries to castigate Gordon for covering up Dent's rampage in Dark Knight Rises and Gordon points out the reality of facing impossible options, is one of the film's best, because it shows a man fully human in all senses – no superhuman training, no gadgets, and a pet vigilante he can never quite explain – wrestling with his instinct for the necessity of the whole truth.
It's Gordon who leads the ersatz French Resistance inside Gotham, who faces down the sham court and calls it out for what it is, who shames a reluctant Foley into donning his uniform for the big showdown, who locks himself in a truck with a nuclear bomb and the only signal blocker. Gordon believes in Gotham, and always has; he was Bruce's hero before Bruce knew how to look for one. (When Bruce finally reveals his identity to Gordon in a callback to Batman Begins, I had an emotion.)
And Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy has, I think, been as much about Gotham as it has been about Bruce Wayne. Bruce Wayne has his trilogy arc, but the movies' finest moments have been when Gotham proves itself a superhero city filled with people, not just staffed with extras - Batman galvanizes (and survives because of) the good that already exists, and while his supervillains exploit his faults, he just as often deals with little evils from Gotham's petty criminals and misguided citizens.
This Gotham matters as more than Macguffin, because it shifts the reality of Batman away from what it could be, which is the richest sociopath in the world with a city he uses as props for his chase scenes. In Nolan's Gotham, we've seen the ways in which it's at risk, and in which it's more than capable of saving itself.
And as such, this film's politics are bafflingly out of character, and problematic.
At the start of the film, the Dent Act has kept organized-crime lackeys behind bars, which seems to be a good thing (and a later view inside the prison is filled with Central Casting criminals so obvious that the Law and Order: SVU crew is like, "This is profiling"). Gotham seems to be doing all right, with the exception of Wayne Enterprises losing money on a green-energy initiative that has literally stolen food from the mouths of orphans (great, thanks, helpful). Somehow this oversight means that when Bane storms the stock exchange to something something impoverish-Batman trades, he does it under the auspices of a hero to the little people (you can tell because his henchmen are in place as janitors and shoe-shiners), and when he traps the police underground and announces he has a bomb and the citizens of Gotham should take the city back, they forget they just watched their football team get eaten by an explosion and go to it, and when Bane suggests freeing the super-terrifying criminals the city is like, excellent!, even though the very first thing those dudes do is grab guns and join Bane's army, which would suggest ulterior motives to anyone with the deductive abilities of a waffle, but nope, the populace seems to suspect nothing, and revolution's on the menu.
The revolution, in this sudden Gotham, means violently storming the apartments of the rich and looting the shit out of everything. There is literally a shot of a doorman throwing an elderly person in a bathrobe onto the pavement. The next few months is full of police trapped in what I am sure everyone is praying were unused portions of the grid, people sleeping on the floor in the ransacked apartments or holed up making fires in municipal buildings (no doubt out of tourist brochures, since Bane locked the city down), queuing for food and trying not to get picked up by The Most Amazing Sham Court in Gotham. (Serves you right for wanting revolution, says this film!)
The only way out of this, despite several attempts by Gordon, Blake, and company to make something happen among a mostly-invisible populace, is for the freed police force to descend on Bane in a phalanx as Gothamites wait in their homes and Batman returns to save the city from itself. To the false equivalence of revolution against the rich elite as violent and led by villains is added the idea that the people of Gotham are either dupes or cowards, unable to govern themselves or to recognize evil; the city needs a savior police force (of which, conveniently, not one is now corrupt) to return it to its status quo.
It's not as though this plot is without grace notes, either: a board member of Wayne Enterprises volunteering as a hostage is oddly moving (hands together for Gentleman Board Member); the kids who risk their lives in a war zone to alert their neighbors of an escape route; low-level evergreen villain Jonathan Crane popping up as judge of Gotham's newest court to prove the banality of evil. (The priceless Cillian Murphy sasses his lines so hard you'd think he sprained something.)
Nolan, therefore, isn't unaware of what's happening in his subtext. So Gotham's long-standing point of pride, the few and the brave against the many and the wrong, should still be intact.
But this is a downfall in which Gotham itself participated.
In Batman Begins, some people in traditional positions of public power were corrupt, presented both as a symptom of decay and as an inevitability among those in power, and it was something about which Bruce Wayne was warned by the many people who questioned his privilege and his motives, and yet still, the city was portrayed as undeniably worth saving. In a seminal moment in The Dark Knight, two ferries of Gotham citizens, hostages of the Joker and each other, under threat of certain death unless they killed those on the other ferry, still chose not to do so, because the people of Gotham are capable of moral choice. It stymied the Joker; it robbed him of his triumph more than Batman ever did.
In The Dark Knight Rises, that Gotham is gone.
In some ways that might be the most fitting end to the series, more so than the fake death-slash-permanent Florentine vacation of Bruce Wayne, or the discovery of the Batcave by disillusioned ex-detective Robin Blake. If this is a commentary on the slow, inevitable entropy of anything a hero tries to save, then The Dark Knight Rises fulfills its purpose well; if this is meant to be an unexamined revolution, not all the James Gordon in the world will set it right.
But at its heart this movie was mostly interested in giving its billionaire some close-up closure, calling back again and again to his origins, showing how every beginning plants the seed of its end. It's this full circle, then, and not the multiple codas, that we're meant to see as a happy ending; Bruce Wayne in the mask he needs, high above a city that needs to - and can - save itself.
"…So we can learn to pick ourselves up."